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To get back among the best, Caroline Garcia needs to acknowledge she isn’t currently one of them

Beaten by Sorana Cirstea in both Miami and Indian Wells, Caroline Garcia had a mixed first quarter in which she never found the form that had brought her close to the top at the end of 2022

Caroline Garcia Caroline Garcia lost to Sorana Cirstea at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells (Antoine Couvercelle/Panoramic)

The end of the American swing, synonymous with the end of the first quarter, sounds like the time for a first assessment of the tennis season so far. Caroline Garcia’s report is not bad, far from it. The Frenchwoman certainly missed out on this swing, with two defeats against Sorana Cirstea in the round of 16 in Indian Wells and then in Miami. But she still reached two finals (Lyon and Monterrey), reached the second week of the Australian Open, and is still in 10th place in the race to the WTA Finals, pending the end of Miami.

We know many who would be satisfied with this, starting with “Caro” herself last year at the same time, when she left this same Miami tournament in tears, with a foot injury, unable to play properly and sinking down the rankings.

The rest is history. A joyful return to Roland Garros with a rather unexpected doubles title alongside Kristina Mladenovic, then a renaissance in the second half of the season with four titles on four different surfaces, including that climactic finish at the WTA Finals, and in between a first Grand Slam semi-final at the US Open and then, later, a return to No 4 in the world, her best ranking, which she had already reached in 2018 perhaps without ever really appreciating it.

Over the last six months of the 2022 season, it’s quite simple: she picked up more points than anyone else on the women’s circuit. And that’s probably where the great misunderstanding that has always circulated about her started – thanks to Andy Murray and his famous 2011 tweet that has stuck to her ever since: the one that says she has everything she needs to become the next world No 1 very quickly.

Speaking of misunderstanding, let’s be clear here: the Frenchwoman may well have the potential to be one of the best players in the world, if not the best. But the reality is that she is not really one of them yet, even though she is judged as such. Even though her ranking puts her in close proximity to the top-ranked players, it is also a bit of a deception. In fact, she remains quite close to the current “Big Three” of women’s tennis, Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina, or even to players like Ons Jabeur or Coco Gauff who have already played one or more Grand Slam finals, which is not her case.

Garcia has played only one Grand Slam semi-final in her career

Since the beginning of the season, Garcia has reminded us several times, during different interviews or press conferences, how difficult it is for her to deal with the weight of expectations, both those she has for herself and those that come from outside.

But perhaps it is also because these expectations are out of step with a certain pragmatism: how can you “expect” a player to win a Grand Slam when she has only played one Slam semi-final in her career? Why be so picky about a round of 16 finish at the Australian Open from a player who has never done better in Melbourne? There was probably a general hype about her, including in the media, which did not help her.

Of course, aiming higher and higher is the basis of any ambition. But ambition should not be confused with an inevitability of results. It seems that Garcia is the kind of player who does not manage to perform when she feels “obliged” to perform. Like all sportsmen and women, in fact. But perhaps more than anyone else.

Since the beginning of the year, tied up in knots by that sign that was slapped on her back again, she has not stopped denouncing her inability to let go, to play in a free and relaxed way. That was already the case in 2018, when she first broke through to the elite. At 29, she handles it better this time. But not enough, and for good reason: it is something impossible to manage.

Carlos Alcaraz, 19 years old, recalled a basic lesson of performance after his recent win in Indian Wells: if he plays well, it is certainly because he knows how to hit forehands and backhands very well, but it is above all because he continues to practise his sport with total carefreeness. He hits the ball like he hits life and, as he puts it, doesn’t care if he misses; the main thing for him is to go for it and, as if by chance, the ball stays in the court. Acceptance of the prospect of failure, or defeat, is often the first precept of the winner.

Of course, all this is easier said than done. The Spaniard has undoubtedly identified his optimal state of mind, the one that allows him to be in the best mental state on the court. This optimal state of mind is different for everyone: some, like Roger Federer in his time or Novak Djokovic still today, like to position themselves as the boss on the court; others, like Rafael Nadal, have always preferred to put themselves in the shoes of a challenger. It’s really a question of internal psychology, and it’s quite transposable to amateur players.

It is possible and even probable that Garcia is the kind of player who is stronger when she is not laden with the pressure of expectation. Or, like Rafa, when she refutes the label of favourite. To regain the light, fluid racquet stroke she had from June to November 2022, perhaps she needs to reprogram her inner workings and readjust the vision she has – or that others have for her – of her status. The idea would be to no longer perceive her as one of the best players in the world, which she certainly is in the rankings, but rather as an ultra-talented player capable of beating anyone and causing trouble at the top.

She has always been close to the Spanish tennis philosophy, due to her origins and her time spent at the Rafa Nadal Academy, and she could adopt another maxim given by Alcaraz: the important thing in tennis is to enjoy it to the fullest, to make each match a slice of life to be lived intensely and not plagued by parasitic elements, whether they are endogenous or exogenous.

If “Caro” goes all out, there is no reason not to see her come back to the top. But more than ever, the time has come for her to focus on the path, without worrying about the destination.

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